Professional Sumo can trace its
roots back to the Edo Period in Japan as a form of sporting entertainment.
The original wrestlers were probably samurai, often ronin, who needed to
find an alternative form of income.
Currently professional Sumo is organised by the
Japan Sumo Association. The members of the association, called oyakata, are
all former wrestlers, and are the only people entitled to train new
wrestlers. All practising wrestlers are members of a training stable (heya)
run by one of the oyakata, who is the stablemaster for the wrestlers under
him. Currently there are 54 training stables for about 700 wrestlers.
Sumo wrestling is a strict hierarchy based on
sporting merit. The wrestlers are ranked according to a system that dates
back hundreds of years, to the Edo period. Wrestlers are promoted or demoted
according to their previous performance and a Banzuke listing the full
hierarchy is published two weeks prior to each sumo tournament.
There are six divisions in sumo: Makuuchi (fixed at 42 wrestlers), Juryo
(fixed at 28 wrestlers), Makushita (fixed at 120 wrestlers), Sandanme (fixed
at 200 wrestlers), Jonidan (approximately 230 wrestlers), and Jonokuchi
(approximately 80 wrestlers). Wrestlers enter Sumo
in the lowest Jonokuchi division and, ability permitting, work their way up
to the top Makuuchi division. Only wrestlers in the top two divisions are
salaried, and they are called sekitori (to have taken the barrier).
Wrestlers in the lower divisions are regarded as being in training and
receive a subsistence allowance, in return for which they must perform
various chores in their training stable.
In some instances, the best recruits out of Japanese universities are
allowed to enter sumo with the rank of Makushita, instead of the neophyte
Jonokuchi level (see Amateur Sumo).
The topmost Makuuchi division has a number of ranks within it. The majority
of wrestlers are Maegashira and are numbered from one (at the top) down to
about sixteen or seventeen. Each rank is further subdivided into East and
West, with east being slightly more prestigious. Thus, Maegashira two east
is ranked below Maegashira one west and above Maegashira two west. Above the
Maegashira are the champion or titleholder ranks, called the Sanyaku. These
are, in ascending order, Komusubi, Sekiwake, Ozeki and, at the pinnacle of
the ranking system, Yokozuna.
Yokozuna, or grand champions, are wrestlers who generally are regularly in
competition to win the top division tournament title near the end of a
tournament. As such, the promotion criteria are very strict. In general, an
Ozeki must win the championship for two consecutive tournaments (or an
equivalent performance) to be promoted to Yokozuna. More details of the
criteria can be found in the article on Yokozuna.
It is a rank held at the moment by only one man, Asashoryu. Other recent
Yokozuna include Akebono, Musashimaru and Takanohana, who retired in January
2003. In the previous decade, Yokozuna Chiyonofuji retired after winning an
astonishing 31 tournaments. That's nearly as many as Akebono and Takanohana
won together. Once a wrestler has been promoted to Yokozuna, he can never
again be subject to demotion and is expected to retire on his own initiative
if he cannot perform to Yokozuna standards.
There are also special promotion criteria for Ozeki. Usually at least 33
wins are required over three tournaments as a Sekiwake/Komusubi with special
attention paid to the most recent tournament record. The final decision
always rests with the sumo association.
All sumo wrestlers take wrestling names called shikona (しこ名), which may or
may not be related to their real names. Often wrestlers have little choice
in their name, which is given to them by their trainer (or stablemaster), or
by a supporter or family member who encouraged them into the sport. This is
particularly true of foreign-born wrestlers. A wrestler may change names
several times during his sumo career. The current trend is towards more
wrestlers, particularly native Japanese, keeping their own name. For more
information, see Japanese names.
Professional Sumo is practiced exclusively in Japan,
where it originated, but wrestlers of other nationalities participate. The
first foreigner to win the top division championship was Takamiyama in the
1970s. He was followed by Konishiki who won the top division title on three
occasions, and reached the rank of Ozeki. In 1993 Akebono became the first
foreign born Yokozuna. These three former wrestlers were all born in Hawaii.
Former Yokozuna Musashimaru was the second foreigner to reach sumo's top
rank and was born in Samoa. The current Yokozuna Asashoryu is Mongolian and
is presently (in 2004 and 2005) the dominant force in the sport. Asashoryu
heads a small group of Mongolian wrestlers who have achieved Sekitori
status. Furthermore, recently wrestlers from Korea and several former Soviet
and Soviet bloc countries have also found success in the upper levels of
Sumo. In 2005 Kotooshu from Bulgaria, became the
first wrestler of European origin to attain Ozeki ranking. There are
currently 59 wrestlers officially listed as foreigners.
Approximately once every two years the top ranked wrestlers visit a foreign
country to give a display competition. Such display competitions are also
regularly held in Japan. None of these displays are taken into account in
determining a wrestler's future rank. Rank is determined only by performance
in Grand Sumo Tournaments. In October 2005, the Sumo Association made such a
display in Las Vegas. These exhibitions are mostly for show and for
inspiration, as sumo has so far been unable to take root in other countries,
but foreigners have been inspired to try their hand at it in places as far
away as Eastern Europe and Argentina.
As with any sport, Sumo is not without controversy. One in particular being
its exclusion of women. There are no women wrestlers or coaches in
professional Sumo. More controversially, women are not allowed to enter the
ring used by wrestlers, as this is traditionally seen as violating the
purity of the dohyō. The view of those who criticize this continuing policy
is that it is discriminatory. The view of the Sumo Association is that it is
a tradition passed down through the centuries. This issue came to a head
when Fusae Ota, the female prefectural governor of Osaka repeatedly
challenged the Sumo Association's policy by requesting she fulfill the Osaka
governor's traditional role of presenting the Governor's Prize to the winner
of the Osaka tournament, which would require her to enter the ring. Her
requests have thus far (2005) been rejected by the Sumo Federation and she
has sent a male counterpart in her place.
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